There’s a track on Robbie Robertson’s new album, “How to Become Clairvoyant,” that’s destined to generate buzz among guitar aficionados, not just for the sincerity with which Robertson pays homage to a litany of the instrument’s great practitioners but for the company the celebrated musician chose to help out on it.
That song, “The Axman,” name-checks many who are no longer living, and one who remains: Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker, Link Wray, Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elmore James and three Kings of the blues — Albert, Freddie and B.B. — casting the Axman’s place in the world in near-mythological terms:
“He came across the border / With a hatchet in his hand / They said ‘Who’s that stranger? / The one they call the Axman?’” Robertson sings in a spectral whisper. A lot of music fans and critics would say that Robertson’s own name belongs up there with those others in the guitar-hero pantheon for his tasteful, inventive work over a couple of decades with the Band and on his infrequent solo records.
So who did he tap to join him on this musical salute? Not longtime friend Eric Clapton, although the musician nicknamed Slowhand is present on seven other of the album’s tracks and was the main catalyst for getting Robertson to break his 10-year hiatus as a recording artist. Instead, Robertson drafted Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, a musician who at first glance is in another world from the blues, jazz and roots-rock stylists “The Axman” celebrates.
“It was great to think of writing something to pay homage to all these great guitar slingers that aren’t with us anymore,” Robertson, 67, said in the upstairs studio he’s used for years at a busy West L.A. recording complex. “They inspire us so much and will forever, so I just thought that was a prayer worth saying.” He spoke in a deep and woody baritone that contrasts with the sandpapery sung-spoken tones he usually uses when singing. “Then to think: Of all the people around, who would I like to play the part of the Axman with?
“I ended up wanting to work with Tom Morello and Robert Randolph [the sacred-steel guitar wiz who plays elsewhere on the album] because I have no understanding of what they’re doing. And I should know — I’ve been playing guitar for a while now,” he said nonchalantly of the career he’s carved out since he started playing professionally at 16.
For Morello, it was a chance to play with someone who wasn’t so much a childhood hero but a musician he came to know and admire through films and videos of the Band and then direct exposure to Robertson’s solo works. “He was on my radar as a guy who stood up for just causes, and a fine guitar player with an amazing history,” Morello said in a separate interview. “Watching those videos, you get the impression — certainly with Robbie — that you’re watching rock ‘n’ roll being created.... They were creating the template we would later recognize as rock and roll, and he’s one of the people who’s got one hand on the wheel.”
Added Robertson: “I can stand in front of Tom Morello … or Robert Randolph and it’s completely mysterious to me what they’re doing. And I love the fact that I don’t get it. So that’s what I reach for. That’s my instincts.”
Those instincts have taken him into deeply autobiographical territory on “How to Become Clairvoyant,” in which he draws on various facets of a lifetime worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him and his cohorts in the Band — Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — in 1994.
It opens with “Straight Down the Line,” a tour on which he lets listeners follow him geographically “From the Chitlin’ Circuit to the Peppermint Lounge,” on his journey as a young musician soaking up the blues, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll. “When the Night Was Young” reflects on the 1960s, about which he sings, “We had dreams when the night was young… We could change the world, stop the war / Never seen nothing like this before.”
“There was a really powerful unity in the youth of the nation, and they could make stuff happen. And music was the voice of that generation,” he said. “I miss that now. That’s the sadness you hear [in that song] — just missing something that really was so valuable and worked and did make a difference.”
“She’s Not Mine” is a haunting treatise on the elusiveness of love, while “This I Where I Get Off” addresses more directly than anything he’s written his feelings about giving up touring, a chapter in life that was capped with the 1976 all-star concert “The Last Waltz,” which his friend, director Martin Scorsese, captured on film.
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What made him go there at this juncture in his life, 31/2 decades after the Band packed it in?
“It’s a complete mystery to me,” he said, cracking a toothy grin, green eyes twinkling. “That’s why this whole clairvoyant thing has become very important. That’s something I never imagined doing in a million years. I was writing that song, not having any understanding whatsoever what I was doing until it revealed itself. And that’s an exciting feeling in the creative process to me: Oh, my God, look what just happened.”
He continued to speak softly about the Band, which started out in Canada as the Hawks backing singer Ronnie Hawkins, then became the Band after the group moved on to work with Bob Dylan on famous, wild tours.
“I don’t know if anybody’s ever really expressed this, but it’s true: The idea was never to break up the Band or to quit the Band,” he said. “After we did ‘The Last Waltz,’ the idea was ‘OK, everybody, we’ve brought this chapter to a conclusion. Everyone can get their stuff together, do some projects you would like to do — something outside of just us doing stuff.’ There was a sense of freedom, a sense that we’re going to do that and we’re going to get healthier and smarter, and then we’re going to come back together and we’re going to do some great work.”
But it didn’t play out that way after Danko and Helm made solo albums and Hudson started working as producer of another group. “I remember going to the studio one day, and there was something we needed to finish up for another thing that we were doing together. I remember going to the studio and sitting there and thinking, ‘Oh, I guess everybody’s running late.’ And I finally realized: Nobody showed up. And it was a sad moment for me. I thought, ‘OK,’” — he said, taking a long pause, adding, — “I get it.’”
The sadness is evident — an emotion undoubtedly amplified by Manuel’s suicide in 1986, and Danko’s death 13 years later. But so is the pride Robertson holds for the body of work that started with “Music From Big Pink” in 1968 and continued, albeit with less consistency as the rigors of life on the road eventually caught up with the group, through its final formal studio collection, “Northern Lights-Southern Cross” in 1975.
Few musical genres can be traced to specific starting points, but the whole field of Americana music seems virtually inconceivable without the template the Band provided merging roots rock, blues, country, folk and gospel strains into an organic whole. Count Uncle Tupelo and its various offshoots, Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes, Ryan Bingham, Lucinda Williams, the Avett Brothers, Drive-By Truckers and Ray LaMontagne among the Band’s plethora of musical or spiritual descendants.
“It’s a really good feeling to have made music that has had that kind of influence decade after decade after decade,” Robertson said. “I meet guys in young bands now and the way that they relate to it, it’s a real sense of a fulfillment in work that you’ve done....
“I feel so lucky to have been in a group where it was a real band,” he said. “This wasn’t a singer and guitar player and some other guys.... Everybody in that group played such a pivotal part in it.... It made me feel excited about coming up with ideas and ways to structure songs, and that we could do this almost like a theater group: ‘You sing those lines, and then you come in after that thing, and you come in on the chorus there.’ It was a position I could take in this thing and not feel like, ‘No, no, I need to be singing that part.’ I could really stand back and look at it through more of a director’s lens, or some position other than trying to be the center of everything all the time.”
As the group’s chief songwriter, Robertson also is widely credited as the key architect behind the Band’s music, but he came under fire at times from his mates, particularly Helm in his 1993 autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” for not spreading the credit around democratically.
He carries that role into “How to Become Clairvoyant,” on which his chief collaborators are his co-producer, Marcus deVries, and musical pals including Clapton, Steve Winwood, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas, who recorded the basic tracks in London. He brought in Morello, Randolph, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and some additional players after returning to the U.S. to put finishing touches on a collection rich with the kind of sonic and lyrical atmospherics that are reflected in the album’s title.
His curiosity for the unfamiliar has led to his scores for the 1994 cable TV special “The Native Americans,” one that also reflected his own heritage as the son of a Mohawk mother and Jewish father, as well as his contemporary classical-heavy soundtrack for Scorsese’s 2010 thriller “Shutter Island.” It also played prominently into his decision to take on the role for several years over the last decade of creative executive at DreamWorks Records, where he persuaded Nelly Furtado to sign and helped develop other new talent. Last week, Crown publishers announced that it had acquired his planned memoir.
“This has been one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my life, making this record,” Robertson said. “Partially, it was because there was some breathing room. I don’t have a deadline. I can do whatever I want. I didn’t have anybody that I had to answer to....
“Because I didn’t have those restrictions, I finished this record, and I thought, ‘This is exactly what I wanted to do.’ I didn’t think, ‘Oh, God, I hope I haven’t colored over the lines here.’ I knew … I got to achieve exactly what I was hearing.”
But don’t look for him to hit the road. He’s doing selected television appearances highlighting a few of the new songs, but as for touring, “It’s something that I stepped away from a long time ago. I made a movie about it. I’m one of the only people that has stepped aside and not lied about it,” the veteran axman of a thousand gigs said with a laugh. “I do not have yearnings to get back on a bus. If it means getting on a bus, I don’t want to do it.”